I haven’t done much more than skim the surface of The Leveson Report, and I suspect very few others have done much more than that. The Report runs to several thousand pages, and with no prospect of HBO turning it into a miniseries everyone has had to rely on articles like this, which give the bullet points, and newspaper and rolling news pieces of varying degrees of bile and sanity.
My own feeling is that the newspaper industry in this country has dodged a bullet. I genuinely expected Leveson to recommend statutory regulation – that laws be passed to regulate the Press. Instead he opted to recommend the setting up of a new regulatory body to replace the now mostly-discredited Press Complaints Commission, this new body to be independent of both the Press and the Government but underpinned by a statute which would ‘place an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press.’
Leveson says many other things, but it’s the issue of statutory underpinning which has dominated the headlines and exercised the commentarati since the Report was published on Thursday. The prospect of any Press-related legislation being concocted and enacted by Parliament has been portrayed as the thin end of the wedge, a backdoor to Westminster eventually destroying the freedom of the Press.
David Cameron’s decision to reject the provision for statutory underpinning in his speech to the Commons on Thursday afternoon suddenly propelled him from Zero to Hero in the eyes of the tabloids, but it has left him open to accusations of letting down the victims of Press intrusion, on whose behalf he notionally set up Leveson in the first place.
There was, in truth, never any chance that Leveson was going to please everyone. He was either going to piss off the Press and its magnates, or he was going to piss off the victims. In its broadest sense, I think he’s managed to do the impossible and steer a middle course. There are details – such as a recommendation to outlaw off-the-record briefings – which we can argue about all night, but I think he was very restrained. Had I been sitting in Brian Leveson’s chair the temptation to wield a flaming sword against the newspaper industry in this country would have been very nearly impossible to resist.
Cameron’s move sparked what seems to be a bit of a row between him and Nick Clegg, who favours the statutory underpinning, and it was a gift from heaven for the tabloids and the right-wing broadsheets, who now concentrate on the political story while glossing over some of Leveson’s other findings, such as his condemnation of covert surveillance by newspaper journalists, which are harder to duck away from.
This reached such a height of absurdity that yesterday I watched The Sun‘s Trevor Kavanagh – a journalist for whom I have a great deal of respect while disagreeing with almost all of his views – quoting numerous polls to support his contention that the ‘General Public’ don’t actually care about the issue of press regulation. A poll by The Guardian which seems to suggest otherwise was shrugged off as an aberration. “What’s going on there?” asked Trevor. The tens of thousands – and counting – of people who have signed an online petition demanding that the Government enact Leveson root and branch would suggest that quite a lot of people disagree with Trevor, but we’ll see.
What we tend to forget is that the Press excesses that we all found so disgusting – the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, the treatment of the McCanns and others – were carried out by journalists and editors who had stepped beyond the boundaries of decent behaviour in part because they knew no one could stop them. The PCC turned out to be a paper tiger, an industry-led regulatory body without any real teeth. I’ve always said that the only way the United Nations is going to be any real use is if we give it the Bomb, and I feel much the same way about whatever body succeeds the PCC. It needs big balls and the ability to give offending publications and journalists a slap they won’t forget in a hurry. It needs to be independent, and if that independence has to be enshrined in and protected by law then that’s a price worth paying.
In his speech on Thursday, the Prime Minister said that while things had to change, he was unwilling to ‘cross the Rubicon’ of writing elements of Press regulation into law. The Foreign Secretary subsequently opined that doing this would undermine Britain’s standing in the world, making it harder for us to criticise regimes which do not have Press freedom.
On Thursday night the singer Charlotte Church – herself a victim of Press intrusion – appeared on the BBC’s Question Time programme and cut through all the bullshit when she said, “Leveson has said to the press – ‘You take responsibility, you guardians, you take responsibility, you make your own rules’, which is a very privileged position to be in, and all that the statutory underpinning should be able to do is make sure that there is a body that those rules are enforced, and I don’t see any way in which that can affect the free press.”
The alternative is that we do nothing. Another toothless regulator will be set up, the Press will behave with great probity for a time, while they discover the boundaries of the new body, and then things will start to slide again. The industry is in a state of flux at the moment; advertising revenues are tanking, no one has yet managed to come up with a foolproof policy regarding the internet threats of bloggers and news aggregation sites, newspapers are haemorrhaging both readers and staff. The pressure to cut corners, take risks, push the envelope, are immense.
And we will be back where we started.